After spending a year and a half traveling the world, Dawn Picken is back in her Spokane house, and her two kids are back in their old school. Together, the three of them are reconnecting with old friends. The traveling trio went to France, Northern Ireland, Mallorca, Luxembourg and South Africa, just to mention a few destinations, before capping off their trip with an extended stay in New Zealand, and a return trip via Fiji and Hawaii.
“The plan was to return last July,” said Picken, smiling shyly. “But I’d put the kids in school in New Zealand. And, well, then there was Pete.”
It wasn’t lottery winnings that catapulted Picken and her children around the world.
It was tragedy. Picken’s husband, Spokane videographer Sean Stanelun, died suddenly in January 2010 from complications following pancreatic surgery and necrotizing fasciitis. He was 48. The couple’s two children, Fiona and Finley, were 6 and 4.
Throughout her travels, Picken has maintained a blog where she has been sharing thoughts, feelings and travel experiences big and small. She’s written about obnoxious cafe prices in Paris, the beauty of South Africa and the fun and peculiar things that happen when one travels with little kids.
“The kids have been absolutely brilliant,” Picken said. “They’ve learned that they can make friends anywhere. They’ve learned about other countries and cultures without realizing how much they were learning.”
There was no shortage of advice at the time of Stanelun’s death – including that Picken shouldn’t make any big changes during the first year of widowhood. At the time, the former KREM news anchor was working for Greater Spokane Incorporated and had deep roots in the community and the family’s church, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. By all measures, Picken had a solid support system in place if she had chosen to stay put.
Watch Pia Hallenberg talk with KHQ’s Dave Cotton about Dawn Picken’s trip
Yet grief is a personal thing, and losing her spouse was a constant reminder of how quickly life can change. Picken decided she needed change, she wanted to be changed, and she wanted to be in charge of some of that change.
“It’s not like I didn’t grieve, I did and I do,” Picken said. “I just got to grieve in some of the most beautiful places on this earth.” She adds that the round-the-world trip in so many ways is a gift from Stanelun because it was made possible by his life insurance. Picken brought Stanelun’s ashes along.
“Sean is literally spread all over the world, from North Ireland to the tip of South Africa,” Picken said.
Always a traveler, Picken had friends around the world, so when she began planning the journey she had many offers for free lodging. Conscious of her budget, she also used the international host community SERVAS, which connects volunteer hosts that will take in travelers for free.
In New Zealand, Picken moved in with an American solo-mom – the Kiwi term for single mom – near Mount Maunganui, just north of Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty.
Having a roommate was a new and positive experience for Picken.
“We were two moms and four kids, and we were on it,” she said, laughing. “We had the lunches packed and schedule down and the chores taken care of.”
She fell in love with the country, the ocean and the people. Picken joined running groups and a church. She put Finley and Fiona in school and paid $16,000 in tuition so they could stay until the end of school in December. She joined a grief counseling group that was of enormous help as the anniversary of Stanelun’s death came around.
And then one day she thought of, perhaps, finding a companion.
“It would just be so nice to go out for dinner with someone and not get kicked under the table,” Picken said.
She met Pete Nichols with the help of an online dating site.
But make no mistake: Daring to date, daring to feel and eventually fall in love again did not come easy.
Picken wrote this on her blog around the time she met Nichols: “For some, love conjures images of wine, kisses and chocolate cake. I’ve had all three this time around, but can’t shake the sight of IV drips, the smell of rubbing alcohol and the feel of weak hand squeezes. Love leads to consent forms, decisions, ultimate responsibility and ultimate heartache.”
Love also leads to love. When Picken’s landlord moved back to the United States, Picken packed up the kids and moved in with Nichols, a move that made it so much more difficult to travel back to Spokane when her visa expired.
“I went on this trip because I wanted to be changed,” Picken said. “What I didn’t understand was that we would meet people who would love us and want us in New Zealand. Now I have two lives: one here and one there.”
After a heartbreaking goodbye, Picken called the first week back in Spokane a piece of cake.
She loved returning to what she calls her Big Fat American Life: friends, family and creature comforts such as cheap gas, cheap groceries and a house she wouldn’t be able to afford in New Zealand.
“I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for what we have here in the States,” Picken said. “We really do have it good. You won’t necessarily know that if you never leave.”
The second week back was more like a crash landing. Alone in the home she once shared with Stanelun, the memories, the pictures and the tears returned.
Re-entry became painful. She missed Nichols terribly.
The future is uncertain, and she needs a paycheck.
“I’ll do contract work or project work, one thing at a time. I’ll be here for a while,” said Picken, who is also working on a book about losing her husband.
For now, she’s looking forward to a visit from Nichols in July. She’s also applying for a work visa in New Zealand. And she’s practicing living in the now, enjoying what’s here, now.
Would she recommend a trip like this to other grieving parents?
“Yes, absolutely I would. Even if all you can do is two months on the really cheap in Mexico, I’d say go,” Picken said. “It’s very liberating.”